…and then they all ran into the sea

Without new talent, cities will die

Paul Krugman, Nobel prize winning economist and long-time columnist for The New York Times, is also one of the fathers of New Economic Geography. NEG is described as ‘One Economic Theory to Explain Everything’ by a Bloomberg columnist in a handy explainer.

Anyway, I was reading a transcript of a conversation between Krugman and Masahisa Fujita (another parent of NEG) in the journal Papers in Regional Science. Just before the end there’s this helpful reminder of why protectionism and closed borders is so bad for cities:

…agglomeration of a large number of heterogeneous people (essentially, professional workers with heterogeneous skills/knowledge) in a city or industrial district can naturally be expected to contribute to the diffusion, generation/innovation, and accumulation of knowledge, and hence to economic growth. This would certainly be true in the short-run. But this is not assured in the long-run unless there is a sufficient infusion of new blood. (pp.161-162)

Economic growth relies upon new people who help to develop new ideas – clearly endangered by the likes of Brexit. On a lighter note, the transcript (recorded in Puerto Rico) ends as follows:

K: Of course, I agree with you. But, …
I: Hey Paul! Why are standing up? Where are you going?
K: Talking under the Caribbean sun for over two hours has literally fuelled my now burning desire to jump into that ocean.
F: Yeah, all I can think of now is to savour this Caribbean moment with a quick dip and a large beer under the cool shade.
K and F (in unison): Hasta la vista!
Sounds of two big splashes 
I: … Hey, Paul, Masa! Wait for me!
Another big splash is heard, followed by hearty laughter

How to create print-quality maps using open source software

Using QGIS and Natural Earth Data to make bespoke maps

I’ve always been a fan of maps, from an illustrated picture atlas of the world that I used to pore over as a child, to a battered USSR-era Cyrillic map of Somalia that I bought from an antique store in Estonia. I also enjoy reading about maps – from the excellent exposition of global politics via ten maps in Prisoners of Geography to articles about the creation of Google Maps. It turns out creating maps is also quite fun.

In the past I have used online tools such as Stamen maps, using OpenStreetMap data, or the Google Maps-based Snazzy Maps. But for bespoke print-quality map creation you need to turn to GIS software.

Introducing QGIS and Natural Earth Data

I was inspired to try QGIS, an open source programme available to download here, after reading an interview with Steven Bernard, Interactive Design Editor at the Financial Times, and seeing examples of the finished maps he had created.

Steven has an excellent YouTube walkthrough guide that I recommend following from start to finish. It takes you through downloading QGIS and installing Natural Earth data to advanced styling and designing animated markers.

You build upon a blank map of the world:

Map 01

Which quickly grows in complexity:

Map 02

I needed to create a map showing four specific European cities, and so the map needed refining and tidying. Here’s the final map in QGIS:

Which can then be exported at print resolution, or (in this case) exported as a SVG file for editing in a vector graphics programme. This allows the labels to be adjusted and other visual tweaks made.

QGIS is a hugely powerful program offering a great deal of customisation. The user manual is 420 pages and perhaps best works as a backup reference, with the YouTube walkthrough offering an accessible way to jump in and create your first map.

More people needed

Issues facing universities are often shared by the city they are in

Today’s Economist has an article on the University of Oxford’s property development plans – in particular, building new housing.

Homes in Oxford are among the least affordable in Britain. The housing pinch is keenly felt by postdoctoral researchers, 4,500 of whom work in Oxford on short-term contracts with unspectacular pay. The university realised that these academic serfs, who form the backbone of its intellectual project, were spending huge amounts of their income on rent and that if it wanted to remain competitive it would have to find them more places to live.

Many UK cities outside of London have a shortage of skilled workers (and London too has skills shortages in particular areas). Cities and universities are hungry for more people. Infrastructural weaknesses – from dodgy travel connections to a lack of quality and affordable housing – can act as bottlenecks to future growth and obstacles to attracting talented people. The issues facing universities are often shared by the city they are in.

Many European cities have ambitious growth plans. Some want to revitalise particular districts, others recognise they need another 200,000 people to become truly competitive. Where countries have targets in place to, for example, double the number of international students, cities and universities need to work together to accommodate new arrivals. I’ll be presenting new research on how universities and cities are working together on internationalisation, including addressing shared infrastructure challenges, at Going Global in May this year in London.

Political trends vs. universities and regions

Three recent perspectives foresee important roles for universities and cities

How might universities and city regions respond to the rifts in the population and apparent rise of populism exposed by Trump and Brexit? From the cacophony of reporting on the consequences of the political events of 2016, three recent perspectives caught my eye. All emphasise the need to better understand the roles of regions and universities.

Cities and bottom-up innovation

Bruce Katz calls for cities and metropolitan areas to power the United States forward under a Trump administration:

A wide range of policies relating to taxes, trade, the environment, immigration, infrastructure, and health care seem likely to be upended. But some things will stay the same—metropolitan areas will continue to drive our national economy forward, and they will remain the geographies most capable of bridging the partisan divisions that plague our national politics. In both of these respects, local leadership will now be more important than ever…

Over the next several years, the hard business of investing in the future and uniting the nation will not be conducted in Washington. Rather it will occur in our localities, where leaders and residents in our cities, suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas will work together to find common ground and purpose.

Universities as the main links between nations

Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit look to history:

Will we see again a de-Europeanization and nationalization of higher education in Europe emerging, in the light of greater criticism of European integration, the growth of nationalist populist movements, and tensions between Russia and western Europe and the United States?

Academic cooperation and exchange have been in many cases, including during the Cold War, the main relations between nations: they continued to take place and even were stimulated so as to pave the way for further contacts. We have to learn from these lessons. International higher education is substantially different from earlier historical periods, as well as from the Cold War. Its scope is also different, with increasing political and academic power influences from other regions of the world, especially Asia. But, even though we should be realistic that international cooperation and exchange are not guarantees for peace and mutual understanding, they continue to be essential mechanisms for keeping communication open and dialogue active.

A resurgence of regional enterprise

An editorial in Regional Studies provides an unusually speculative forecast for an academic journal (the piece is worth reading in full):

The implications for cities and regions of the fracturing of the international order are highly uncertain. Resurgent popular nationalism would have profound consequences for all territories by inhibiting foreign direct investment (FDI), external trade and access to scarce skills, and forcing more reliance on local capabilities and domestic production. Some argue that a reversal of globalization would dampen economic progress and suppress opportunities for the world’s poorest places and populations. Alternatively, patriotic impulses that challenge ossified structures and global cartels could provoke a resurgence of regional enterprise and organic growth. Well-conceived policy reforms that disrupt business inertia could engender another Schumpeterian wave of innovation and creativity based on smaller-scale production. Dynamic regional multipliers might be spurred by efforts to localize resource flows so as to secure the supply of food and scarce materials, to cut energy consumption and to regenerate degraded ecosystems. Enhanced democratic constraints on business short-termism may also curb financial speculation and encourage longer-term investment in the real economy.

Furthermore, international disengagement might serve to bolster local and regional identities and renew a sense of place and belonging. This could elevate the obligations on civic leaders and rebuild confidence in the role of city and regional institutions. Against this, heightened perceptions of fear and insecurity could foster a ‘new tribalism’ through separatist movements, ethnic tensions, insurgent splinter groups and other inward-looking forces that escalate conflict and pull countries and regions apart. Much depends on whether democratic institutions are capable of responding to the genuine concerns of citizens and can meld different interests and values together in pursuit of shared agendas and collective solutions. Meanwhile, if the Paris climate deal leads to restrictions on fossil fuel extraction in favour of clean energy, this could make many regions reliant on oil, gas and coal reserves vulnerable to stranded assets and obsolete power generation systems. The case for regional studies is accentuated rather than diminished in all these scenarios. Systematic analyses of how different territories are adapting to the unravelling of globalization and introducing more holistic and resilient strategies to cope with the turbulence are urgently needed.

In other news, I have written a short piece for KPMG on a new era of university-city partnerships. A longer piece will follow later this year.

On mayors

A new batch of elected mayors are arriving in England next year. They will have an important ‘soft power’ role, acting as a figurehead for the region, developing an international presence, marketing the area, and influencing government policy. They will also be responsible for strategic decisions over areas devolved as part of their individual devolution deal. Universities should make it their business to work with the mayoral candidates in their region.

More on the Universities UK blog, and accompanying factsheet.

Commissions, conferences and the voice of universities

Universities can position themselves as integral to parts of the debate where their inclusion is less obvious

Last week Stephanie Flanders, former BBC economics editor, launched the emerging findings of the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission at the Core Cities summit in London. The Commission follows in the footsteps of the City Growth Commission, which informed much of the previous government’s policy on cities and devolution.

The findings argue that:

As a country we need to put social capital on a par with traditional physical infrastructure when we consider how to invest public resources in future growth. That means treating as investment, policies that are designed to bring poorer people and places up to the level where they can contribute equally to economic growth.

A similar message emerges in the ‘zero draft’ of the New Urban Agenda that will be set out at the major UN Habitat III conference in Quito next month:

We recognize that we must ensure equitable and affordable access to basic physical and social infrastructure for all, including affordable serviced land, housing, energy, water and sanitation, waste disposal, mobility, health, education, and information and communication technologies. We further recognize that provision must be sensitive to the rights and needs of women, children and youth, older persons and persons with disabilities, and other people in vulnerable situations such as refugees, migrants, and displaced persons, removing all legal, institutional, physical, and socio-economic barriers that prevent them from participating equally in urban life and the opportunities it offers.

(For more on why Habitat III is a big deal, see this excellent piece published on The Conversation.)

Many economists and policymakers have long advocated for increased investment in education and other social goods on par with physical infrastructure. The voices of the Inclusive Growth Commission and Habitat III will add weight to these arguments.

However, the beneficiaries of investment in social capital also need to speak up at the major conferences and forums. Bodies such as universities and hospitals can make the case for investment in their facilities, and the economic and social returns this generates. They can also position themselves as integral to other parts of the debate where their inclusion is less obvious, such as provision of public space: a strong case can surely be made for investing in open university campuses designed to bring people and ideas together and share knowledge. When I read these sentences in the New Urban Agenda draft, they seem almost written with universities in mind:

Public spaces, which consist of open areas such as streets, sidewalks, squares, gardens and parks, must be seen as multi-functional areas for social interaction, economic exchange, and cultural expression among a wide diversity of people and should be designed and managed to ensure human development, building peaceful and democratic societies and promoting cultural diversity.

Photo: Panorámica del Centro Histórico de Quito on Flickr

Engines and Powerhouses evidence published

In what now seems like the distant past, before the Brexit vote and the change of government, the House of Commons launched an inquiry looking at the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine and government policy towards regional growth. (You can read my thoughts on the Northern Powerhouse post-referendum here).

The written submissions to the inquiry have just been published. Of the 50 submissions, a quick count suggests that least a quarter are written by a university, a university group, or an institute based out of a university. Clearly universities are taking the regional growth agenda seriously.

Following the change of government, the committee will now look ‘more broadly at Industrial Strategy, rather than focussing on specific regional models’. Hopefully some of the good practice and lessons learned around forming strong regional links will be taken forward.

Work by Centre for Cities, looking at lessons learned from the Rhine-Ruhr (Germany) and Randstad (Netherlands) regions, found that these areas were successful not because of transport connections between their respective cities, but that ‘strong regional economies require strongly performing cities at their heart’, with a high concentration of knowledge-based businesses and highly skilled workers. This perhaps explains the high level of university engagement with regional policy in the UK.

The Rhine-Ruhr and Randstad regions were part of the inspiration for the Northern Powerhouse. Hopefully the importance of knowledge and skills as the basis for strong economies won’t be lost with a wider focus on Industrial Strategy rather than specific regional models.

I wrote Universities UK’s submission to the inquiry – read it here.

Photo: Kranhaus, Cologne on Flickr

Sim University

In Sim University YOU are the vice chancellor!

Introducing the latest instalment in the award-winning Sim franchise: manage your own university!

Will you guide a multi-faculty university to the top of the global league tables, or sit at the helm of a small specialist institution?

Will you become a pillar of your local community, helping the disadvantaged and working with small businesses? Or will you look to attract international students and form multi-country research partnerships?

You’ve just been hired. You have a board of governors on your back, local newspapers watching your every move, and students looking for jobs after graduating (and a great time before then). League tables are constantly tracking your rise or fall.

How will you balance the books and grow your reputation? Will you launch an aggressive expansion campaign, constructing lots of shiny buildings to attract students and staff, or focus on forming partnerships? Will you open overseas campuses, or build incubation centres for student startups?

How will you keep your staff and students happy? Will you pay salaries above the local average, or give free laptops to students? Your star academic is ruffling feathers – do you fire them or promote them?

In Sim University YOU are the vice chancellor!

Exclusive to the UK Brexit edition: prepare for the Teaching Excellence Framework, lobby the Home Office on student visa regulations, form regional alliances, and dabble in Higher and Degree Apprenticeships!

university_sc4-1

The case for simulators

Simulators can be a valuable testing ground. In a fascinating tour through the history of city building games, Richard Moss notes how urban planners used the original SimCity (released 1989) to test existing ideas and inspire new ones:

Playing SimCity helped develop our understanding—or mental model, as Will Wright [Sim City’s founder] calls it—of the urban environment that so much of the world’s population lives in, and it took some of the mystery out of why urban planners make the seemingly bizarre decisions that they do.

If you thought you could improve traffic flows by making the roads five times wider and staggering residential blocks with commercial and industrial ones, you could try it and see (spoiler: it doesn’t work—traffic always expands to fill road capacity, and such a zoning policy would lower land values and increase pollution). If you believed a nearby rail line was increasing crime in your area, you could model your city in the game and experiment with changes.

…the city builders of tomorrow will likely be all about exploring the future of real-world city design. After all, city builders were always—right from the very beginning—about building a utopia, and our best hope of one day achieving a perfect built environment is to practice in simulations first.1

Modern simulators have become increasingly sophisticated. One city planner has said that SimCity 4’s traffic simulator is ‘actually more advanced than what most traffic engineers use in real life’. The game has been used to model suburban sprawl.

She built more police stations in Providence than probably exist in all of Southeastern New England, swapped out the electric power plant for a nuclear one, and bulldozed the church

Others have used simulators as tests of competence for leadership roles. In a great article about the real mayors of SimCity, Jason Koebler tells the story of the 1990 Democratic primary election in Providence, Rhode Island, where a 15 year old freelancer for the local newspaper invited five mayoral candidates to compete against each other in a game of SimCity. One candidate didn’t take the test too seriously. She ‘built more police stations in Providence than probably exist in all of Southeastern New England, swapped out the electric power plant for a nuclear one, and bulldozed the church’. In a strongly-Catholic area, some felt this lost her the primary.

Some fare better. Koebler writes how in 2002 mayoral candidates in Warsaw, Poland played SimCity 3000. Lech Kaczynski won the competition, won the election, and eventually became the president of Poland.

So might there be a case for a university simulator? Universities are highly complex and higher education policy is interlinked with wider policies on economic growth, employability, skills, education, cities,2 internationalism and immigration. No two institutions are alike, and some are unrecognisable from one another. But I still think there could be some merit in a university simulator. I don’t suggest Sim University would make a good selection exercise for prospective vice chancellors, but we could test new ideas and also understand the complexity of effectively managing a university. I might be the only person who would play it though…

Images from SimCity 4


  1. Here is an example of a game created by a professor from the University of Southern California School of Architecture that aims to contribute to the discussion about the future of cities. 
  2. Incidentally, SimCity 4 confirms the important role universities play in cities. Josh Dzieza in the Daily Beast: ‘Education in SimCity is a sort of wonder drug: if you build a university, people get sick less, commit less crime, build solar panels on their roofs, get wealthier, and are generally better off. They also start to complain more about bad city services and pollution, so depending on what sort of Sim mayor you are it could have drawbacks.’ 

Four reasons to look at universities and urbanism in Ghana

Universities meet education and skills needs, but are also local development actors in their own right. In Ghana they can play an important role in both

Ghana faces a set of challenges similar to many emerging nations…

Ghana is an ‘African Lion’: a fast-growing economy, falling levels of vulnerable employment and rising productive employment led to Ghana becoming a lower-middle income country in 2007. However, there are skills gaps in the areas of medicine and health, engineering and technical skills, limited job opportunities in the formal sector for those leaving university, and the proportion of the labour force leaving tertiary education rose just 2 percent to 5.4 percent from 1992 to 2013.

…including the transition to a ‘knowledge economy’

In a paper submitted to the African Center for Economic Transformation, Baah-Boateng and Baffour-Awuah lament the gap that opened in per capita income between Ghana and South Korea from 1950 – when incomes were broadly similar – to today, when South Korea’s output is six times higher. They cite a World Bank paper that suggests ‘at least half of the difference is due to South Korea’s success in acquiring and using knowledge’. Their paper finishes with a strong set of policy recommendations (that are applicable nearly anywhere in the world), including the participation of industry in curriculum design, more internships during courses, placing university staff in industry, and government intervention to subside expensive technical courses at public universities.1

As I’ve noted before, creating better jobs requires making difficult decisions in education policy to match labour market demand.

Ghana

Ghana is a case study of global urbanisation…

In 2015 51.9 percent of Ghana’s population lived in urban areas, broadly similar to 54 percent globally in 2014. Ghana’s urban population will reach 72.3 percent by 2050, in line with 70 percent globally. Urbanisation is moving much faster than planning.

…which will bring challenges universities can help solve

UN Habitat recommends government collaboration with universities in Ghana to improve planning and to address sustainable urban planning principles. Accra, for example, is at risk of flooding and – as Rotterdam has demonstrated – universities can help city planners to simultaneously prepare against disasters and create a better place to live and work.

In the Greater Accra region, 40 kilometres from the capital, the new urban area of Ningo-Prampram is rapidly growing. Urban strategies stress the ‘very limited timeframe to avoid unplanned sprawl and transform Ningo-Prampram into a thriving and prosperous compact, connected, socially inclusive and resilient city, which would be a sustainable development example for the country of Ghana and for the region as a whole’. A ‘university city’ in the northeast would offer ‘residential areas and services for students, professors and researchers, developing innovative agriculture and forestry processes that are tested in the fertile central park and the northern irrigation lands, improving crop production and fostering food security’. This is an excellent example of the campus working with the city to test new ideas before rolling them out further – seen elsewhere in the form of smart campuses.

Photos: Cape Coast and Ghana on Flickr


  1. Although there are objections from within Ghana’s universities to relying on the taxpayer for funding. 

Rebalancing: a case study of South Korea

Previous governments restricted the expansion of universities in Seoul. In the 2000s, a new government put universities in charge of regional growth

Discussions over ‘rebalancing’ the economy outside of London by strengthening other regions – explored in part one and part two of this miniseries – are not unique to the UK.1 South Korean academic Haknoh Kim writes that:

Balanced development is not a new policy goal in South Korea. Two basic facts – too heavy a concentration in the “Seoul capital region” and a very limited degree of political decentralization – have aggravated the disparities across regions in Korea for a long time… the Seoul capital region, only 11.8% of the South Korea’s total areas, accommodates 46% of the population, 57% of all manufacturing firms, about 70% of enrolled university students, 2/3 of financial activities.

In the mid-2000s the South Korean government prioritised decentralisation and balanced development as a national priority, but, unlike previous governments, saw this ‘as a means to strengthening the competitiveness of the country as a whole’.2 Yong-Sook Lee, an academic at Korea University, explains how balanced national development was encouraged through innovation:

…the PCBND [Presidential Committee on Balanced National Development] set up 14 regional innovation councils with 725 commissioners across the country… These councils were designed to encourage local initiatives in creating and implementing regional policy. To achieve self-sustaining endogenous development, the PCBND pursued a Nuri [New University for Regional Innovation] project that nurtures local talent by supporting local universities. In 2004, the government allocated a five year grant of 1.4 trillion won [about £900m at today’s rate] for cultivating local talent in promoting regional strategic industries. In 2006, a grant of 260 billion won [£170m] was awarded to 109 local universities in non-capital regions… Furthermore, the PCBND placed emphasis on reinforcing networks between local universities and local industries for the purpose of boosting R&D activities in non-capital regions.

Universities seem to play a particularly prominent role in South Korea. Kim expands on the New University for Regional Innovation concept:

NURI promotes “competition” within respective provincial regions by concentrating financial support on excellent projects selected in each region. It is worth noting that local universities form the project headquarters in NURI programs. They should include in their project teams other regional innovation actors such as other interlinked universities, research institutes, local authorities, business firms, or NGOs. This way, the principal universities serve to build and expand innovative networks between business, academia, public authorities, and other related actors.

Arguably, business is underrepresented. Here is the composition of the Daegu-Gyeongbuk Regional Innovation Council in 2006, where universities are nearly a quarter of members but business less than 10 percent:

Category Number of councillors
Local/regional authorities (including civil services) 23
Research institutes 7
Civil society (including NGOs) 19
Universities 24
Business 9
Press 6
Innovation supporting agencies 12
Total 100

Kim concludes that ‘the emergence of regions as an autonomous and important actor in the development of the country is quite a remarkable progress in Korean society’. However, ‘Korea is lagging behind in that it lacks “regional experimentalism” found in Europe’, mainly due to a lack of ‘sufficient autonomy and independent resources despite the participatory government’s emphasis on bottom-up approach’.

Whilst universities have been instrumental to South Korean attempts at rebalancing, genuine autonomy, devolved resources and partnership between important local actors are required for regions to be strengthened. It would be valuable to see progress in the ten years since the two academic articles referenced here.

This blog is in three parts. Previously we looked at the future of the Northern Powerhouse, and how universities can help realise the benefits of agglomeration.

Photo: Daegu, Korea on Flickr


  1. My interest in South Korea was piqued by a single reference in the excellent Nations and the Wealth of Cities publication by the two Greg Clarks: ‘the national government has employed a strategy to diversify economic activity from the dominant Seoul capital region by incentivising clusters and universities to scale up in the regional cities. The complementary economic roles of Busan’s seaport and Daegu’s manufacturing expertise have also been significantly supported’. 
  2. Previous administrations tried to rebalance the economy by many means, including applying brakes on Seoul’s development by restricting the expansion of universities, factories, shops and other development that might attract migrants. Did we see an echo of this in the UK, albeit under a different policy narrative, in 2015 with the proposed crackdown on satellite university campuses in London, ostensibly to stop exploitation by economic migrants?